A more human approach to the practice of law

Terry McCabe

(Words and photograph by David Field, based on an interview by Jerome Doraisamy)

Terry McCabe at Collins Flat Beach, near his home in Manly.

Terry McCabe at Collins Flat Beach, near his home in Manly.

For someone who has had such a successful career in the law, it is remarkable to think that Terry McCabe's entry into the legal profession owes much more to happy accident than to any carefully crafted plan.  Terry goes so far as to characterize his entry into the profession as "one of those crazy, accidental things".

Terry describes himself as part of the "forgotten middle" of a large Irish Catholic family of eight children, and credits that fact with a distinct lack of vocational guidance when he was growing up - although he is quick to note that life guidance in general was something of a foreign concept back in the sixties.

"I'd never met a lawyer in my life," he says, "and I went to the university admission centre, and this three-minute conversation with the woman there really changed my life."

 "She said 'You've got to select your degree now.  Based on your higher school certificate results you can do medicine, vet science or law.  Which one do you want to do?'"

"And I said 'Look, I don't really know anything about any of them.'"

"She said 'Well, looking at your subjects, you did reasonably well in maths and science, but your major subjects, where you really reached the best levels, were English, history, Latin and French.  That sounds more like law.  Is it okay if I tick law?'"

"And I said 'That's fine.'  So that was what cast my career."

Despite the somewhat quixotic origins of Terry's legal career, he's made a profound mark on the Australian profession, founding a thriving law firm with a unique approach and culture.  He says the firm's origins came from a desire to create what he calls "a more human approach to the practice of law".

"I think it's a product of my own experiences.  I think I am a person who struggles with depression and anxiety.  I've always questioned my self-worth, and I really struggled as a young lawyer, wondering whether I was in the right profession, whether I was good enough.

"I always remember thinking... that someone would finally out me and say 'you don't really know what you're talking about and you don't belong here.'

"I always had that sense of worry at my core, and I think as I moved into a more powerful and influential position within the profession, I saw that I wasn't alone with those feelings.  I think that is something which is a real issue within our profession generally.

"So I felt that one of the things that I would like to do was to make the place that I would ultimately control when I became a managing principal one where we could deal with those issues that others would face, so that they had maybe a better time than what I'd had when I was a young lawyer." 

Terry describes the bedrock of the firm as ensuring that every decision they would take would be driven by stated and defined values, that were lived, made known to all, and shared by all.  In order to achieve that broad acceptance of the values adopted by the firm, they had to be values that spoke to everyone's basic needs as human beings.  "It means that instead of being a different person at home with friends and family... if those values really do speak to our humanity then we can just be the same human beings within the work environment as we are outside.  I think that then leads to a greater level of authenticity in our dealings with each other and our clients."

One of the five core values of McCabes is "balance".

"We're not made just to be sitting here producing wills or trust deeds or statements of claim, with that being the centre of our lives," says Terry.  "That means there's got to be time given to other things, and other activities have got to be encouraged, and that can be the whole range of the different things that people have interests and passions for.  Or their other responsibilities that they have as parents and partners.  There's got to be a life balance."

While Terry has recently stepped back from the managing principal role at the firm that he founded, he gets so much out of his work with the firm that he's in no hurry to retire.

"I'm not sure I ever want to retire completely, but if something happened and I was forced to do that, I think I've made a difference to this firm and I think this firm has had an impact even more generally in the legal profession, so I feel really privileged to have been able to do what I've done, and I hope and would feel confident that what we've started will continue after I'm gone, because it's not dependent on me anymore, it's something which is lived by everyone here."



Copyright Doraisamy, Field and Standish 2016-2017